With 40 years of materials research and development experience—including 25 years at Lockheed-Martin—Frank Kustas was more than qualified to start his own company. In 2012, he started NanoCoatings, Inc. (NCI) in Grand Junction, Colorado. Today, the Chief Technology Officer runs the company from Monument, Colorado, depending on two very capable engineers hired from South Dakota School of Mines & Technology to conduct day-to-day operations for the Rapid City laboratory, which opened in 2015 at Ascent Innovation.
NCI is heavily involved in R&D projects for the Department of Defense, but their coating materials and deposition methods are also suited to certain commercial applications, as well. Since its inception, NCI has won six Phase 1 SBIR/STTR projects (each involving a one-year contract), a U.S. Navy Phase 2 project, and a pending U.S. Army Phase 2 STTR project. Their cutting-edge coating materials are thin and durable, designed to reduce corrosion, friction and wear, abrasion, and erosion, and provide electronic-material properties. Applications range from replacing liquid lithium electrolyte in commercial Li-ion battery cells with solid materials to eliminate thermal-runaway, fire, and explosion hazards to developing protective wear coatings for agricultural equipment, parts for oil and gas exploration equipment, and pump manufacturers. Thicker armor coatings are also being developed by NIC for military shelters and vehicles.
Their location in the Ascent incubator offers many advantages. The School of Mines is a key subcontractor for most of their research efforts, providing state-of-the-art electrochemical testing for the solid-state battery program, which is unavailable anywhere else in western South Dakota. They are able to tap into the strong talent pool, as well; the company has taken advantage of the state-sponsored Dakota Seeds program several times and hired SD Mines interns to assist with projects. Frank says this is a win-win for everybody. "It's good for us to have some new ideas and student enthusiasm," he explains, "and a good thing for the students to put on their resumes."
Due to the expense in setting up equipment and maintaining fully automated coating systems, NCI's business strategy is to develop unique intellectual property, protect it with patents, and license it out to bigger coating companies or, potentially, battery manufacturers.